Good morning from the lounge at Nice Airport!
I am just about to board my flight back home to Chicago, but before I leave France, I wanted to share another Guest Post.
Today’s Guest Post comes from Daniel W.
Although Daniel doesn’t have a “blog” (although he should start one!), many you may know him from the various DOs where he has spoken about Car Rentals.
Car Rentals are one of the topics I have absolutely no idea about. My recent experience renting a Car in September was anything but simple.
So when Daniel volunteered to write about Car Rentals, I jumped at the opportunity for myself and FFU Readers to learn more about the very opaque world of Car Rentals.
There has never been a more exciting time to be in the rental car world (bear with me on this). Fleets are modernizing and many of the models which have been staples for years are being refreshed.
Fleet purchasers are no longer limited to purchasing base-model specials, and higher end models are becoming commonplace on rental car lots around the world. You are much more likely today to find a car with leather, a sunroof, satellite radio, and other high-end features which, even a few years ago, would not have been the case.
This post is designed to help you learn some of the basics of the reservations process, loyalty programs, and most importantly, why you should never be stuck in a smoky, high-mile Chevrolet Impala again!
I’ll be focusing my blog post on two of the major players in the rental industry: Hertz and National.
There are two main reasons for this.
First, in my (humble) opinion and experience, these two companies have really put together industry-leading programs, both in terms of their loyalty programs, customer service, and product delivery.
Of course, there are countless other agencies out there including Avis/Budget, Dollar/Thrifty, Enterprise, Alamo, etc, all of which have their own unique programs.
Second, my own experience has largely been with these two agencies, so I can write most intelligently about them.
I will confess that 100% of my rentals are paid for by yours truly, with no corporate reimbursements. Why does this matter? I’m not tied to any particular agency so I have tried just about everything and I keep coming back to Hertz and National.
Travelling is not the only reason you may want to rent a car, although it is certainly the most common.
The main reason I rent is to defer mileage from my own personal vehicle.
On the weekends, I often have to drive long distances and rather than put miles on my own car, I would rather put them on the rental. I estimate that I have deferred between 5-10,000 miles this year just by renting cars when needed for longer trips.
Rental cars are also helpful for a lot of other purposes.
Grab a pickup truck or minivan instead of a truck from Home Depot, Lowes, or U-Haul, all of which charge by the mile (rentals are generally unlimited mileage), and save big.
Need to impress a client from out of town? Grab a fully-loaded Cadillac or Infiniti with the new car smell still hanging in the air. The reasons are endless.
Local vs. Airport
Many people don’t know that rental agencies are not limited to airport locations; rental agencies are expanding into suburban areas, close to where you may live or work.
Enterprise and Hertz are perhaps the most prevalent in the local markets, with Avis/Budget close behind.
Since I generally use Hertz, my experience has been primarily with my local Hertz Local Edition, or HLE.
Benefits of Airport Rentals
- Better and more diverse vehicle selection and newer fleet
- 24 Hour Service
Benefits of Local Rentals
- Free parking (you cannot usually park your personal vehicle at an airport rental agency when picking up, but usually you can at a local agency)
- Lower taxes (airports tend to charge much higher taxes and fees)
- More flexible and ability to accommodate specific requests
At least with regards to my local Hertz (again, I cannot speak to other local agencies), I could not be more satisfied with the service I receive.
I always receive an upgrade, and often if I have a specific need, the manager is able to get me the vehicle I request.
For example, if I need a pickup truck to move some furniture on a weekend, all I have to do is call up my local Hertz and the manager will do what he can to procure one for me, often for the price of a compact or economy.
The point of this?
Be nice to your local agency staff and they can really come through big for you.
The next part of this post will analyze the Hertz and National loyalty programs.
Hertz’s loyalty program is the recently-renamed Club Gold Rewards. Website can be found here.
There are four levels of status:
- #1 Club
- #1 Club Gold
- #1 Club Gold 5 Star
- #1 Club Gold President’s Circle.
I will not summarize all of the benefits of the program since that is readily accessible information.
There is a fifth, higher level status called “Platinum” which, depending on your status, costs anywhere from $1200-$1500.
You cannot be “status matched” in to Platinum and it must be purchased. More info here.
Reports from some renters on Flyertalk are that the benefits of this Platinum status are minimal over standard status achieved through number of rentals, such as President’s Circle, but of course your mileage may vary.
A few thoughts I have on the Hertz Club Gold Rewards:
- Join! There is almost always a promotion which makes joining the #1 Club Gold free and not the $60 it may say on the Hertz website (hint: there is one running right now). It costs you nothing and even as a basic Gold member, there are certain perks that I find incredibly worthwhile, such as
- No Lines. Gold members get pre-printed contracts and their name posted on the “Gold Board” at all locations where Gold service is offered (pretty much every airport, and many many of the “Hertz Local Edition” locations. Also available is a text/email alert system allowing you to know (while still on the plane!) what stall your car is in as well as the make and model. The benefit of the Gold status is that rather than having to wait in line, you simply proceed directly to your assigned vehicle. Simply hand the gate agent your preprinted contract and license, and you’re on your way.
- Gold Choice. I will discuss Gold Choice in greater detail below, but you must be a Gold member to participate.
- Faster rewards. Being a Gold member also allows you to generate reward points which can be redeemed for free days, expensive one-way rentals, or even renting that new Mustang GT convertible you’ve had your eye on, which is part of the Hertz “Adrenaline Collection.” Points can also be transferred to many of Hertz’ partners including airline and hotel chains (although this is not generally a good use of points).
- Upgrades and Credibility. As a Gold member, this signals to the station that you should be treated better than the average traveler. Remember, the station does not know how you got your status or if you got it for free! At least in my experience, this means that you are more likely to get the nicer, lower mile cars and, if and when possible, an upgrade.
National too has a loyalty program, which it calls the Emerald Club.
The Emerald Club is free to join, all the time.
(Please use Daniel’s Referral link here to sign up, as he gets credit for everyone that signs up. Thanks, Parag)
There are three tiers within the Emerald Club: Emerald Club, Emerald Executive, and Emerald Executive Elite.
There is also an invite-only VIP status which cannot be purchased, requested, or matched.
For more information, see the official website (along with a helpful video) here
The benefits of Emerald Club membership are very similar to those of Hertz Gold.
- Vehicle selection and “bypass the counter.” Emerald Club members get to choose their vehicle from a designated area the general public does not get to choose from: the Emerald Aisle and the Emerald Executive. There is no need to wait in line, simply go and pick your car and the Gate Agent will print your contract as you leave. More on this below.
- Free Day Rewards. Rather than points, Emerald Club members generate free days based on either days rented or number of rentals, and in turn this depends on status. For example, a basic Emerald Club member earns a free day for every 7 paid rentals; Executive, every 6; and Executive Elite, every 5. These rewards can be incredibly valuable, as these “free days” can be redeemed on expensive one-way rentals or in expensive markets like New York or San Francisco.
- Pay One Class Less (Executive/Executive Elite only). Rather than guarantee an upgrade, Executive and Executive Elite members pay one class below the actual class rented. For example, a Premium will rent for the same price as the full size, full size the same as the midsize, etc.
Basic Operating Models
Hertz and National have very different models of operations and I will address these next.
When you rent with Hertz at the airport, you are assigned a car in a specific stall.
The assigned vehicle will generally be in the class reserved although, as mentioned above, Gold members sometimes will receive a one-class upgrade or more (depending on availability/member status/etc).
If you do not like the car you are assigned (say, it reeks of smoke and you’re a nonsmoker), you can always ask to change but this of course takes time and additional effort.
In response to its competitors, Hertz recently introduced a new program called “Gold Choice.”
Gold Choice is only open to Gold Members.
The basic premise is that if you don’t like the car in your stall, you can go over to the Gold Choice area and pick something else. This service is only available at certain locations so check in advance if this is important to you.
The only catch is that you have to have booked, at a minimum, a midsize car (compact in Europe).
In practice, there will usually be a “free” upgrade section with an assortment of more common cars (such as full size and perhaps a small SUV or two) and a “paid” upgrade section.
In the paid section, you are likely to find vehicles from Hertz’ special collections, such as the Prestige Collection and Adrenaline Collection, with a per-day upgrade charge on the window.
Top tip: That number is negotiable and you absolutely should negotiate if you see something you like.
Remember, the station is in the business of renting out cars, not letting them sit, so if you make a reasonable offer, you may be surprised. Gold Choice agents have discretion (to a point) and it costs you nothing to try.
National has a much different model.
Members of the Emerald Club are not assigned a specific car. Rather, members are allowed to select any car in the Emerald Aisle (“EA”) or Executive Selection (“ES”), depending on the member’s status, so long as the member’s reservation is a midsize reservation or higher. (Note: this only applies at locations offering the Emerald Aisle service, which is most but not all locations; non-Emerald Aisle locations may operate differently).
Top tip: If you don’t like what’s on the EA/ES, you can take from what’s called the Emerald Reserve, which is the selection of vehicles in the actual class you reserved.
In the EA/ES, renters will find an assortment of different makes and models. Full size cars, SUVs, convertibles, minivans, and premium cars all can find their way onto the EA/ES.
Part of what makes this so exciting is that you never know what you’re going to find, AND the system leaves you, as the renter, in complete control. You can open every door, smell every interior, and check for active satellite radio before you leave the lot.
Need a minivan or want a convertible?
If it’s on the EA/ES and you’re an Emerald Club member with at least a midsize reservation, you can take it!
Of course, with ever-changing and shifting rental fleets, there is no guarantee that any one particular car or class of car will be on an EA/ES in any given location. On Flyertalk, there is an extensive list of member reports of cars they see at a given location. While not definitive, you can have an idea in advance of what a given station might have in its stock.
I’m often asked if you can count on a certain kind of vehicle being at a station, because a midsize is generally cheaper than many special classes (such as minivans or convertibles). Let’s use an example. You’re taking your family to Florida in January and you need a vehicle with 7-passenger capacity.
The midsize costs $40/day but a minivan costs $100.
What to do here? Make two reservations!
Make one for the car you absolutely need (the minivan) and one for the midsize.
If, when you arrive, there is a minivan (or any other vehicle with 7-passenger capacity) on the EA/ES, you can take it for the midsize price. If there isn’t, you’re still covered.
You don’t even have to cancel the unused reservation (although if you have a smartphone, it is very easy to do and can avoid confusion at the gate. For this reason, I generally cancel.) (As a practical matter, it will be extremely unlikely that you will find a minivan on a Florida EA/ES in peak tourist season).
Maximizing your savings with National
Use the Free Coupons.
National usually has either a free day coupon or $20 off three days’ rental coupon running at any given time: use these to your advantage! Especially on a cheap rate, the $20 off coupon can translate into almost 2 free days’ worth of renting!
Last Minute Specials.
In my opinion, the Last Minute Specials are the best-kept secret about National. If your rental is on a weekend or will be weeklong, be sure to check these first. These rates provide huge savings off of rack rates for standard weekend rentals (Thursday-Monday) or weeklong rentals. These rates are usually available for one week and are updated every Tuesday. The nice part is that while called “Last Minute Specials” the rates are good for reservations that weekend up to the following weekend. So it is worth checking 2 weeks before your trip.
For example, this past weekend, the last minute special rate for a midsize (the minimum required to participate in the EA/ES) in Detroit was $12.99/day. I stacked a $20 off 3 day or more rental coupon (also available on National’s website) and the total rental cost for three days was $24.86. Waiting in the ES for me was a 2013 Ford Mustang convertible with a tick over 3000 miles on it. $25 to enjoy a convertible, and defer 1000 miles from my own personal car? Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Check rates often.
Due to inventory shifts and demand, rates can vary drastically from day to day. For some people it isn’t practical to check every day, but especially on high-dollar rentals, I find it worth the 5 minutes each day to check. Is your time worth a couple of hundred dollars?
A Word on Third Party Rental Services (such as Hotwire/Priceline)
Don’t automatically assume third party services, like Priceline or Hotwire, will give you the best deal.
Most of my rentals are on weekends, which are generally cheaper than weekdays.
Using a combination of publically-available rental codes and coupons, I can usually beat the Priceline rates for a given weekend. You can too!
Other reasons not to use Priceline/Hotwire
- These rentals are prepaid, so you will not get a refund if your travel plans change. Rentals booked directly from the agency, however, can be modified and cancelled at no charge.
- There are mixed reports about whether you will earn loyalty credits for these rentals, but generally you will not.
- You will be stuck renting the class you reserved. Even Emerald Club members, or Hertz Gold members, would not be able to receive the upgrades they might otherwise have received had they rented directly from the company. You also cannot participate in the Gold Choice or National EA/ES choose your car system with these. Booked a midsize with Priceline? You’re leaving the lot with a midsize. Even if it costs a little more, in my opinion it is worth the premium (pardon the pun) to have the freedom to choose (and take advantage of the upgrades).
Trial and Error with Contract Codes
National uses rate “contract” codes to determine your base rate (Hertz uses what are called CDPs).
These contract codes can come from a multitude of sources and include a variety of what we’ll call “base features,” such as insurance, no-charge extra drivers, etc.
Each code is different.
A growing list of these codes can be found on Flyertalk (link here: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/national/851283-new-discount-contract-ids-coupons-thread.html and Flyerguide http://www.flyerguide.com/wiki/index.php/Emerald_Club_Contract_IDs).
I take no responsibility for the validity of the information posted on either of these sites and they are there for your reference only.
Please note: These codes are designed for use by certain eligible individuals, whether it be through corporate employee travel or other association. Different codes will produce different rental rates, sometimes with drastic savings.
No matter how good of a deal you might find – DO NOT USE A CODE THAT YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE TO USE – and if you have to ask, you probably are not eligible! I cannot emphasize this point enough.
If caught using a code for which you are ineligible, a whole host of consequences can follow, including but not limited to inconveniencing those renters legitimately entitled to use it (National will cancel suspicious reservations, including legitimate ones, if a code is overused), being charged a full rack rate when the ineligibility is discovered, ineligibility for insurance protection associated with one of these codes in the event of an accident, being added to the Do Not Rent list, and more (see this Flyertalk poster’s account here: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/19199762-post1045.html) .
Please use common sense when using these codes.
Take this example from a recent rental I had at the end of July as a demonstration of how different codes can produce vastly different results. As you can see, the rates vary drastically depending on which code I used (I am eligible to use all of these codes, by the way).
All of these rentals applied National’s coupon NF5817ZDT, which was for 1 free day on a three-day rental.
Emerald Club Members 5007125
Total $169.79 all in ($76.89/day rate)
Last Minute Specials 6600435
Total $89.39 all in ($35.99/day rate)
Entertainment Book 2012 5030190
Total $75.09 all in ($25.03/day rate)
Of course, I selected the Entertainment rate because it was so much lower. (as a practical matter, I have never seen the Entertainment Book rate undercut the other rates by so much, but this is why it’s always worth checking!)
The same logic holds true with Hertz. See a list of good CDPs here, but again, do not use codes that you are not entitled to use: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/hertz/1107806-few-good-coupon-codes-just-post-codes-here.html.
Quickfire – 3 other common issues
- Insurance. Avoid the costly mistake of purchasing the rental company’s expensive insurance. You might be fully covered already! Many credit cards offer rental insurance as one of the cardmember benefits, and many personal automotive policies that you carry on your own vehicle will cover you while you drive a rental car. Check these options before checking the insurance option at the airport!
- Gas. It almost never pays to prepay the fuel option, unless your time is worth a high premium. Unless you are planning on returning the car with ounces left in the tank, take the five or 10 minutes it takes to refill before you return. Your wallet will thank you!
- Damage Checks. Walk around and do a thorough damage check on the vehicle before you leave the lot. Door dings, scratches, etc are all worth noting. Take pictures at the time of rental and keep them until you return the car. You do not want to be charged for pre-existing damage on a rental car, a missing trim piece, etc. Once a vehicle is returned, it is impossible to prove that you did not cause that damage. Often in the haste of travel it is easy to skip over this easy 5 minute process which can save a ton of headache later on.
This post barely scratches the surface of the world of renting cars. However, if you spend some time on Flyertalk and other forums, there is a wealth of information out there to be learned.